Videos & Speeches
Mar 20 2013
I want to discuss with my colleagues here in the Senate an amendment I have filed to the continuing resolution that is now pending before the Senate. It is amendment No. 55. I have spoken about this issue on the floor previously this week but want to reiterate the merits of this amendment and ask my colleagues for their support.
Amendment No. 55 deals with this issue of air traffic control towers. Under the administration's plan in implementing sequestration, the plan is to close, on April 7—just a few days from now—173 air traffic control towers across the country. The amendment I that I am offering avoids that. The administration would no longer be able to do that. I believe they should not for numerous reasons, but what we do in order to accomplish that, is transfer $50 million from two accounts, one dealing with research at the Department of Transportation, and one dealing with unencumbered balances. This is an example of what we have talked about before; that we can make better decisions than across the board cuts. In fact, the amendment I wish to offer deals with an issue that is not even an across the board cut.
In closing the contract towers, in eliminating the Contract Tower Program, the administration is cutting that program 75 percent. Sequestration is described to us as, in most circumstances, an across the board five percent cut. The amendment I wish to offer continues the five percent cut. That would occur for the air traffic Contract Tower Program, so that they would be treated like other programs at the Department of Transportation and throughout government, that they are not singled out for elimination of a program, resulting in a 75 percent reduction in that program's funding, not just the more minor five percent. So the administration's decision to close contract towers is far from balanced, and in choosing this program, in my view, has taken the opportunity to damage the safety and security of the flying public of America.
I want to talk about that in a moment. But there was also the suggestion that this is a provincial argument on my part, that it is something I care specifically about for Kansas, my home state. Certainly there is not anything wrong with caring about our home states. That is what we do here, and it is part of our responsibility. But this is far from just being a Kansas issue. Many states and members of the Senate are more greatly affected by this cut, this elimination, than my home state.
In fact, this amendment has the sponsorship of 26 Republican and Democratic cosponsors. More Democratic senators here are cosponsors of this amendment than Republican senators. It is Senators Roberts, Inhofe, Blumenthal, Blunt, Johanns, Kirk, Manchin, Hagan, Klobuchar, Baucus, Tester, Enzi, Vitter, Boozman, Pryor, Merkley, Wyden, Kaine, Warner, Ayotte, Shaheen, Risch, Crapo, Murphy, Rockefeller, and Wicker.
It does not sound very provincial to me. In fact, 42 states will have their air traffic control towers eliminated. This amendment is broadly supported by the aviation industry. If there is an aspect of this that is unique to Kansas, it is that we manufacture many general aviation aircraft. We are the air capital of the world. But this amendment, while being supported by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, by National Business Aviation Association, the National Air Transportation Association. It is also supported by the American Association of Airport Executives and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Again, it is not a very provincial amendment when sponsored by so many of my colleagues, affecting 40 some—43 States of the United States, and broadly supported by the aviation industry as a reasonable, commonsense solution to a problem we face. I have been adamant about bringing this amendment to the floor. I am a member of the Appropriations Committee. I will have the opportunity—in fact; I serve on the subcommittee that deals with the Department of Transportation. I should and hope to have the opportunity to deal with this and other issues related to the Department of Transportation in the normal appropriations process that, hopefully, will follow the passage of a budget. So I ought to be in a position to be helpful to the cause I believe in at a point later in time.
But here is the problem: The air traffic control towers will close on April 7. We will never get to an appropriations process between now, here at the end of March, and April 7. So, the Appropriations Committee and, ultimately, the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the President will never have the ability to restore a program that is gone April 7. So while I have tried to put myself in a position to be helpful to the cause in the long run, there is no long run battle to be fought because the control towers are gone in just a matter of a few short days.
This amendment matters. This is my last opportunity. If and when cloture is invoked later today on the underlying bill, there is no opportunity for amendments to be considered. So my colleagues who indicate to me so strongly that they support my amendment, this is the only opportunity we have to have success.
This clearly is not about my success in an amendment. Although I would love to have the opportunity for this amendment to be voted on, it may or may not pass. But the Senate ought to work its will in making that determination. With the broad support of the industry, with the broad support of my colleagues here in the Senate, one would think this is an amendment which is at least worthy of a vote. That has not been the case. So it is important for me to again reiterate to my colleagues that if you invoke cloture this afternoon or later this morning, if you invoke cloture, there is no other opportunity for us to address this issue, this problem.
So let me again request the opportunity. I lay awake last night from 3:30 on trying to figure out what it is I can say to my colleagues to get their attention about why this is so important. There are lots of things that can be said. We have so little time before this is either a program that existed in the past and will no longer exist in the future--the consequences are so dramatic that I would again ask my colleagues for their assistance in at least bringing the amendment to the floor so that the Senate can make a decision, yes or no, about the merits of the amendment. This is about safety. There was an article I just happened to read today in reading my clips from Kansas. This is in a Kansas paper, but it is an AP story from Chicago. The article is entitled “Trouble in the Air,” and here is what the AP reporter writes about the planned shutdown. The article says:
“The planned shutdown of nearly 240 air traffic control towers across the country under federal budget cuts will strip away an extra layer of safety during takeoffs and landings, leaving pilots to manage the most critical stages of flight on their own. Airport directors and pilots say there is little doubt that the removal of this second pair of eyes on the ground increases risk and will slow the progress that has made the U.S. air system the safest in the world. It's not just private pilots in small planes who stand to be affected. Many of the airports in question are serviced by major airlines, and the cuts could leave towers unmanned during overnight hours that some big-city airports such as Chicago's Midway and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee. The plans have prompted airlines to review whether the changes might pose problems for commercial service that could mean canceling or rescheduling flights. ‘Without the help of controllers, risk goes up exponentially,’ said Mark Hanna, director of the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., which could see its tower close. But many in the aviation sector are frustrated by the political brinkmanship in Washington that has affected such a sensitive area of aviation. Jim Montman, manager of the Santa Fe Municipal Airport, which is on the list for tower closures, said the absence of controllers raised the risk of midair collisions or some sort of incident where somebody lands on the wrong runway. That critical link is gone. Pilots are trained to watch for other aircraft and announce their position over the radio during approaches, landings and takeoffs. But past crashes, however rare, have exposed weaknesses in that system. On November 19, 1996, a 19-seat United Express flight landing in Quincy, Ill., collided with another twin-engine turboprop that was taking off. They slammed into each other at the intersection of two runways, killing all 14 people aboard the two planes. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the probable cause was a failure of the pilots in the outbound flight to monitor the radio frequency for air traffic and to properly scan for other planes. ‘If a tower was there, it's highly likely that the accident would have been prevented,' said Hanna, who became the director of the Quincy airport about two years after the crash. The 238 air traffic control facilities that could be closed were chosen because they are at airports with fewer than 150,000 flight operations per year. They are located in every state.”
Again, the point of this amendment is not whether or not I find the right words to convince my colleagues to allow this amendment to come to a vote. As much as I struggled through the morning hours trying to figure out what those might be, the real issue is not about my words or my personal success in getting this amendment considered, but it is about the safety of Americans.
I cannot figure out why this amendment cannot be made in order. Again, broad support—broad support with Republicans and Democrats. I have had many senators, including very senior senators from the Democratic side of our aisle, come to me and express amazement that this amendment, so broadly supported, so important, cannot be considered. I cannot come up with an explanation. I don’t know why this is the case.
When I’ve talked to every senator I have talked to about this amendment they tell me they do not oppose it, it ought to be voted on, they support it. Yet for some reason the Senate is incapable of agreeing to even a vote on an important and critical amendment that promotes the safety of the American people. I can only guess—and it is always difficult to attribute motives, but as I talk to my colleagues, the only explanation I ever get that has any semblance of truth is that there is a point to be made here. By denying the amendment's passage, we prove that sequestration can’t work; we cannot cut money from budgets.
Again, I did not vote for sequestration. So when the majority leader says this morning about the hatchet being taken to programs and it is all bad--I did not vote for sequestration. I believe in the appropriations process that allows us to make these decisions to increase funding for some things, decrease funding for other things, eliminate programs. Yet sequestration, in my view, has an effect upon all programs equally, whether they are effective or ineffective, whether they are valuable or invaluable. We treat them the same. So I am not here on the cause of sequestration, but apparently there are those in this city, in Washington, D.C., who want to make the point that if the air traffic control towers are eliminated, it will demonstrate once and for all—I don't know; to Republican Senators, to Senators in general, to Congress, to the American people—that there is no opportunity to cut budgets.
If people want to make that point and if they can convince people that it is true that there is no opportunity to eliminate $85 billion in spending, that is fine with me. That is what this place exists for, is for us to have the debate about whether we can reduce spending, increase spending, what our Tax Code ought to be, what the value is of government services and programs and how they ought to be funded. But if it is true that the reason this amendment is not being considered is because we want to prove a point—that there is no money to be cut, that sequestration is a bad idea, that reducing spending is always a bad idea, that we have to raise taxes—if that is the point that is trying to be made here in the process of denying this amendment's consideration, then it is a very dangerous way to try to prove a point.
Prove your point in argument and debate about the merits of spending, about the merits of the program. Prove your point in the Appropriations Committee, in which we take testimony and hear from people about what is important to them, priorities, what their needs are, what their wants are, what has value, what doesn’t. But do not try to make the political point about this topic by reducing the safety of people who fly in and out of communities across the country. As the article said, this reduces the nature of our air traveling safety from the best in the world to something less than that. So make the point. Have the debate and argument about the value of sequestration, about the value of what money we spend and don’t spend.
But let's not try to prove the point by reducing the chances that the American people, when they travel, are safe and secure in our airways. I do not know, and I hope this is never the case—this point may never be proven about the safety, but once there is an accident and someone dies and a plane crashes, the question will always be, what if there had been an air traffic control tower there? What if we had left the program in place?
These communities that have the air traffic control towers have spent years in developing a plan to put them in place, have worked with the FAA and the Department of Transportation over decades to bring their airports and its airport safety, flying safety to higher standards. An issue here is that this is going to disappear overnight. So you can be an airport manager, an airport authority, a member of an airport board anyplace in the country with 200-plus air traffic control towers, and you’ve worked hard over years, decades, to get the standards in place and to have the air traffic control process at your airport. In one day, April 7, one night, the lights go off in the tower. They no longer exist. All the work you have tried to accomplish on behalf of your community and those who fly in and out of your airport disappears in one stroke.
So I speak with a level of passion about this issue, for really the purpose of which I think we are here to do, which is to advance the common good of the American people. It’s not a provincial amendment. It is not something that just Moran and Kansas need. There are many states much more affected by this. But the truth is that every American, every person who flies will have less safety and security in the skies as a result of this issue, as a result of the decision made by the Department of Transportation to eliminate this program.
So, once again, I intend to ask later in the morning, when our leaders are on the floor, for unanimous consent to bring this amendment forward before the time expires. In my time in Congress—I have only been in the Senate a little more than two years—I’ve not been trying to be obstreperous. I’ve not tried to be difficult to deal with. I believe in the opportunity to reach out and work together. I followed the rules. I did what everybody tells me you should do: go find people who support this amendment who are Democrats and Republican; bring them together.
And as the leader said earlier in the week—I guess it is now last week—earlier last week about how we are going to get back to regular order, we are going to have amendments offered, I hope we can dispose of them quickly, we have an opportunity to do that with this amendment. It is not controversial. It is not partisan. It is about something that ought to be of importance to all Americans, certainly to every Senator. Later in the morning when the leaders are present, I will ask unanimous consent once again that we consider this amendment. I know there are others who want to offer amendments. I see my colleagues from Arkansas and Missouri on the floor. I know they have an amendment—I think it is No. 82—with which they want to offer the opportunity to address a problem by taking money from one account and put it in another account in order to keep meatpacking plants operational, that we have the meat inspectors present at the plants. Boy, that is an important issue too. That is about the safety and security of Americans. It is about food safety. I hope no one objects to the amendment that Mr. Pryor and Mr. Blunt are going to offer this morning. That is another amendment which is very similar in nature, about deciding that we are smarter to spend money here than here.
As the Pryor-Blunt amendment comes before the floor, I would ask my colleagues, just as I would ask them to grant unanimous consent, I hope no one objects to their request for unanimous consent that their amendment be considered. I would ask that no one object to the amendment I intend to offer. I certainly will not object to the Blunt-Pryor amendment. I wish it was leverage to get my amendment considered, but it is too dangerous to play that game. That is what we do here in Washington, D.C., is try to strike a deal. In this case, when we strike that deal, we are leaving people behind whose lives are going to be adversely affected.
I certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of people who work in the meatpacking industry and the consumers of meat products across our country, in the way of trying to solve a problem that is clearly there. I hope their amendment receives unanimous consent, and I hope it passes by this Senate's will. I would ask the same thing when the appropriate time comes, I will ask for the same thing on an amendment that is about the safety and security of American people. I thank the Presiding Officer for his indulgence and at least his appearance of listening to me.